Post in our forum for parents, teens - You! - at

Friday, June 13, 2008

Online safety as we know it: Becoming obsolete?

The headline may seem a bit inflammatory, but it's a sincere suggestion coming from 10+ years of observing and participating in the online-safety field. What we all know about online youth now from a substantial and growing body of research suggests it's time to reassess. We know, for example, that...

  • Young people make little distinction between online and offline and move constantly and fluidly between the two, with the focus more on the activity (socializing, schoolwork, listening to music, or all the above) than on the device or "place" where it's occurring.
  • The Internet has increasingly become a mirror of "real life" - what kids do online is not about technology, it's about life, child and adolescent development, functioning in community, at-risk behavior, critical thinking, and media literacy.
  • It's the young people at risk offline who are most at risk online, so expertise in adolescent at-risk behavior is necessary to the discussion.

    Consider the first of nine myths about "digital natives" (online youth, basically, people who've never known life without the Internet) put forth by Profs. John Palfrey and Urs Gasser at a conference at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center: "Myth #1 - The online world presents a wholly new and completely different set of issues for youth we must address" (the ninth complements it: the myth that digital natives are a homogeneous group). [Even homogeneously speaking, research shows that young people themselves are getting smarter all by themselves about privacy and reputation management online (Pew/Internet data summarized in "Teens rule the Web").]

    So, we might ask, should online safety be a separate field or discipline with unique safety expertise concerning some monolithic group called online youth? Certainly the Internet can augment and perpetuate problems in young people's lives in unprecedented ways, but research is showing that the substance of the problems is rooted in those real lives, not in a specific technology. It has to do with adolescent development and behavior much more than with technology. In fact, a great many types of expertise are becoming essential to the discussion - from neurologists on the teenage brain to psychologists on adolescent risk assessment to school counselors and administrators right in the trenches of gossip-cum-bullying blogs and cellphone photo-sharing. Sometimes we need to consult experts in constitutional law and computer forensics too (a dean of students once wisely had a computer forensics cop show students in a school-wide assembly how they're not as anonymous online as they think).

    Where people with experience in online safety can help (in this transition time before the "digital natives" are parents and professionals themselves) is by...

  • Educating the public that online safety and well-being is not separate from "real life" and needs the same accountability.
  • Educating the public about how the Internet affects real-world actions or comments: how it can perpetuate them, reproduce or compound them, make them searchable, and bring unknown, unexpected audiences to them (see social media researcher danah boyd on this in an interview at
  • Serving as information clearinghouses and connectors to the right kind of expertise for predation, bullying, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. The help we could point teens and parents to might be at customer service departments of Web sites, virtual worlds, or mobile phone companies; school administrators; certain specialists in law enforcement; legal advisers; social workers; psychologists; and so on.

    My model for the clearinghouse approach is Netsafe in New Zealand. Providing online-safety education for all New Zealanders (youth, parents, schools, community organizations, companies, policymakers), Netsafe is an independent nonprofit organization with an active board membership representing New Zealand's Education Ministry, educators themselves, judges, corporations, parents, students, social workers, police, and New Zealand's Police Youth Education Service, Internal Affairs Dept., and Customs Service. Yes, Netsafe's an online-safety education organization working hard at the preventive end like many organizations in the US, but it also works at the remedial end, getting problems that come up to the right kind of help. An example of its clearinghouse role is in its direct relationship with New Zealand's two main mobile carriers' customer service departments, helping them get abuse calls about phone-based bullying and other problems to the right experts - sometimes parents, social workers, counselors, and school officials, not just law enforcement.

    Probably no single organization in the US, with its population of 300 million (vs. New Zealand's 4 million), can handle all that Netsafe does nationwide in its country. The US's National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) - with its CyberTipline working at the remedial end and NetSmartz working up front at education and prevention (intelligently focusing more and more on safety in general, not just the online kind) - is certainly going for this more holistic approach. But our society is still too focused on the crime and law enforcement part of the "problem," and our online-safety field is still dominated by lawyers and law enforcement. Certainly society needs to keep addressing crime online, but the online-safety field - though maybe not quite obsolete - needs to reflect the breadth of young people's use of the Internet and all related devices and technologies, positive as well as a negative.

    Comments, arguments, and other views on this from parents, educators, counselors, and other adults working with online youth would be most welcome in our ConnectSafely forum or via

    Related links

  • Myths about "digital natives" from Profs. John Palfrey, director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Urs Gasser at University of St. Gallen in Switzerland
  • Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer at Northwestern University's Center for Technology and Social Behavior write in an executive summary: "We argue that the current moral outrage and national panic over the risks of victimization faced by girls on the Internet has nothing to do with risks faced by girls on the Internet" in their essay "High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online."
  • Here's what John Palfrey blogs about the Cassell/Cramer and other essays in the new book Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (MIT Press).
  • More findings in researchers' "Stories from the Field" at the Digital Youth Research project at University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

    Labels: , , , ,

  • Educational social network site?

    Not long ago Dale Ferrario was working at Sun Microsystems and wanting to figure out how to help young people learn about technology in a way that was relevant to them. He asked himself questions like how to combine social networking with learning about technology in a safe online environment. So after 20 years, he quit Sun and started a nonprofit social-networking site called, the Saratoga (Calif.) News reports. The site gives 13-to-18-year-olds "the chance to explore and create through activities and projects, such as changing the image of the Mona Lisa by putting a new face on it, creating a video game or social networking to start a small business. Students can learn to create a Web site or design a computer game or mashup. They can learn the inner workings of software programming, graphic design and more. Each of these areas includes contests with prizes such as an iPod and T-Mobile phones.

    Labels: , ,

    Thursday, June 12, 2008

    10 mobile social networks

    The number alone is significant. And more mobile social networks (or services for phone-based socializing) are mentioned in the reader comments below this item in They're the services that want to be "the MySpace of the mobile Web," as Sarah Perez of ReadWriteWeb put it in another post. Twitter's not even on that list of 10 - is that because they're distinguishing between mobile (cellphone) blogging and mobile socializing (I think there's a fine line between the two, but maybe that's because I'm following the advice of author/professor Daniel Solove and trying to think less in terms of binaries such as online vs. offline, blogging vs. socializing, private vs. public and thinking in more granular ways)? Why is the growing number of phone-based social services significant? According to Perez, "InStat is predicting that by 2012, there will be nearly 30 million 'millennials' [Gen Y-ers or people born between the mid '80s and the mid-'90s] in the US using a mobile social network of some sort, and a ComputerWorld report confirms that, worldwide, that number will soar to 975 million by 2012." Any "millennials" in your family are quite likely to be among them.

    Labels: ,

    For youngest Web users, YouTube beats Disney

    We're talking about the Disney Channel Web site, here, not the Disney Channel on TV, but this is still interesting: Among 2-to-11-year-olds, YouTube was No. 1 for online video viewing and a distant second, reports CNET, citing Nielsen figures. For YouTube, the number of 2-to-11-year-old visitors in April was 4.1 million; for, it was 1.3 million. NickJr was also on the list, but note that MySpace - whose minimum age is 14 - was too. So was Google Video. "On average, the kids watched 51 video streams from home during April, spending almost two hours on video clips. That usage outstrips the average of nearly 75 million adults [44 video streams and 1 hr, 40 min] who regularly view video clips at sites like and," CNET reports. I agree with reporter Stefanie Olsen where she writes: "Slightly disturbing, the site with the highest concentration of 12- to 17-year-olds, or 44% of this age group, was, a hub for live Webcams of people in their bedrooms." For more on Stickam, see "Social networking unleashed," the kind without monitoring, customer-care staffs, and safety czars and "Parents, be aware of Stickam."

    Labels: , , ,

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008

    US's top 5 social network sites

    The US's top 5 social network sites in terms of visitors in April (the latest figures available) are MySpace, Facebook, myYearbook, Bebo, and BlackPlanet, in that order, according to Web traffic research firm Hitwise. Interestingly, this was also the ranking order for the sites in terms of returning visitors and time spent on the sites. MySpace's April market share was 73.82%, Hitwise said, followed by Facebook (14.8%), myYearbook (1.33%), Bebo (1.09%), and BlackPlanet (0.98%).

    Labels: , , , , , , ,

    MyYearbook: US's fastest-growing social site

    It seems to fly mostly under the radar where adults and conventional news media are concerned but, according to Web traffic measurer Hitwise, is now the third-ranking social network site in the US. That's according to Hitwise's figures for share of visitors this past April. My guess is, the site's smart to stay focused on high school-aged users. Founded in 2005 by siblings Dave and Catherine Cook when they were high school students, myYearbook is also the fastest growing social site, cites HitWise figures as showing, with market share growth of "426% in the past year alone. Visitors to spent more time on the site than they did on the two leading social networking sites, MySpace and Facebook. The average visit was 32 minutes and 54 seconds for myYearbook, compared to 29:54 for MySpace and almost 21 minutes for Facebook." Favorite features among its users, according to myYearbook, are "'Match,' which enables them to make new connections online; 'Battles,' where members battle for 'Best Looking' or 'Cutest Couple'; 'Pimp,' an all-out profile customization tool with all the glitters and animations anyone could ever want; and 'myMag,' where young people sound off on issues like anorexia, cliques, relationships, and the fashions and foibles of their favorite celebrities." The site added "Video Battles" and "myMag" last July.

    Labels: , , , ,

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    New iPhone: A parent's view

    The last time I checked, there were almost 2,000 articles worldwide in Google News about the very cool, $199 smart (3G) iPhone just unveiled by Apple's Steve Jobs. I'll bet not one of them offered a parent's-eye-view of this product. But the view is clear across these relatively uncharted waters: the pressure is on, parents; a whole lot of young cellphone users will want one. The reasons: it's cheaper, they'll argue (than the first iPhone at $399), and "you'll be able to find me anytime," a smart teen will tell you, "because it has GPS technology." What they probably won't tell you is that, with it, they - the ultimate multitaskers - can surf the Web and do mobile social networking twice as fast as on the old iPhone (the new one "runs on AT&T's high-speed network using 3G technology," the Washington Post reports), so they can watch video, get directions to parties, etc., "even when they're on a call," Apple marketing says. Also attractive to teens, who really like to download and mess around with software applications and games on phones, in social sites, and on the Web in general, my ConnectSafely co-director and CBS News tech analyst Larry Magid reminds me, will be the iPhone's App Store (some of the apps will be free, Apple says). Here's Larry's piece on the new iPhone at Avid music and video sharers may prefer the 16 gig $299 version, but they might keep that wish to themselves in case it lessens their chances of getting an iPhone at all, right?

    Then there's the safety question: What parents also need to know, though, is that this and other 3G phones are basically mini Net-connected computers that go everywhere with their users. With one significant difference: this little mobile computer's movements can be tracked. With GPS technology, you can pinpoint your kids' locations, as they'll tell you, but so can their friends (with social-mapping services such as loopt) and - potentially - non-friends, if they're using a social-mapping service and aren't careful about giving their numbers out to and keeping friends lists restricted only to their real-life friends. We are clearly way beyond putting filtering and other parental controls on a single family computer plugged into a wall in a high-traffic area of the house.

    The iPhone does come with parental controls, the Seattle Times reports, but I couldn't find any specifics on them yet at The phone has to be used with a two-year AT&T service contract, and AT&T and the other major US carriers also have parental controls, but parents will need to check with AT&T to see if its service's controls work with the iPhone's. To see what controls are available from the major cellphone companies, click to "What Mobile carriers need to do for kids" (see also our forum ConnectSafely's "Cell-Phone Safety Tips"). [See also the New York Times on how 3G or smartphones are taking off and how 71% of women make the decision about their family’s wireless choices, including phones and service plans. (Smartphones require data plans that can cost $30 or more a month.)]

    Labels: , , , , ,

    Monday, June 09, 2008

    How teens use social network sites: Clear insights

    For some of the clearest, most significant insights yet into how young people use digital media, consider watching footage from "From MySpace to Hip Hop: New Media In the Everyday Lives of Youth," a forum recently held at Stanford University. Hundreds of hours of observation and interviews with young people around the US by more than 20 researchers are represented in the presentations. They're on the second video in the group, introduced by Mimi Ito, one of the principal investigators of the Digital Youth project. Their work is funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Try to watch all the way through to Ito's meaty summary at the end of the second video.

    Of particular interest to parents concerned about teen social networkers' safety are findings by C.J. Pascoe mentioned by Dr. Ito, for example that: "Contrary to common fears, flirting and dating are almost always initiated offline in the traditional settings where teens get together and extended online. Her work clearly shows there's a strong social norm among teens that the online space isn't a place to find new romantic partners, but a place to deepen and explore existing offline relationships." Exceptions: marginalized teens "whose romantic partners are restricted for cultural or religious reasons" and gay and lesbian teens (the latter are "not reaching out online for random social encounters but using the expanded possibilities online selectively to overcome limitations they're facing" in their offline social networks); and the very small percentage of teens most at risk of sexual exploitation (see "Profile of a teen online victim"). You'll probably appreciate too, as I did: Heather Horst's findings on teen use of social sites and digital meeting within the context of the family; Ito's comments on the two forms of teen social networking, friendship-driven and interest-driven; danah boyd's insights into the friendship-driven side and Dilan Mahendran's fascinating examples of interest-driven, collaborative digital media making. They all indicate that there is a growing intelligence among teen social media producers about audience: "What they make is inextricably linked to who they make it for and with. They're making media for niche networked publics, not the undifferentiated public of mass media."

    Labels: , , , , ,